I thank you also for the extract of the letter you were so kind as to communicate to me on the antiquities found in the Western country. I wish that the persons who go thither would make very exact descriptions of what they see of that kind, without forming any theories. The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the tracts which favor that theory. But it is too early to form theories on those antiquities. We must wait with patience till more facts are collected.
To Charles Thomson, September 20, 1787
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The facts will speak for themselves, given enough time.
Thomson was a friend and fellow patriot. He served as Secretary to the Continental Congress for 15 years and was a principal designer of the seal of the United States, still in use today. He and Jefferson were members of the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s premier scientific organization. The two men traded letters over matters of interest to the APS. In this letter, that interest dealt with “antiquities” (bones, fossils, artifacts) found in the American west.
By 1787, the middle Ohio River valley (roughly Kentucky and Ohio) was being settled but much of what lay further west was relatively unknown. Jefferson, like any good scientist, wanted to know more, but he wanted lots of evidence before drawing any conclusions. Prematurely-formed theories got in the way, tending to cloud an individual’s judgment. He saw only those facts which supported his theory.
Jefferson’s patient approach had wider application than explaining western antiquities. He often took a wait-and-see attitude. He was capable of bold action when required, but if he had the time, he much preferred gathering more information and seeing where it led, rather than being led somewhere by a preconceived notion.